When home is more unsafe than public space

Mention the words ‘women’ and ‘public space’ in the same sentence and someone will pipe up and add on the words: violence, safety, fear. So ingrained is the sentiment that a woman in public is unsafe and prone to physical/sexual attacks, that in the workshops Why Loiter undertakes on women and public space, we are sometimes accused of encouraging women to risk assault when we point to the possibilities of women finding pleasure in public space.

In fact, recently someone emailed me a query on what I think women should choose: security or freedom? Implicit in the question was the understanding that women can either be secure by staying at home or risk assault when they seek freedom in public and those are the only two options available to them.

However, a new global United Nations study reveals the fallaciousness of that ‘safe at home-unsafe outside’ argument. More than half of the women who were murdered worldwide last year were in fact killed by their partners or family members, making home “the most dangerous place for a woman,” according to new research published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

The statistics released on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women examined available homicide data to analyse the gender-related killing of women and girls. It concluded that around 87,000 women were killed around the world last year, some 50,000 — or 58% — at the hands of intimate partners or family members. This amounts to some six women being killed every hour by people they know.

For us in India, this is not surprising data. Statistics provided by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), that collates annual data on reported crime in the country, shows that a majority of cases of ‘crimes against women’ are perpetuated in the private space of the home and by family members. For example, 2016 NCRB data shows that while in general ‘crimes against women’ reported an increase of 2.9% in 2016 over 2015, a majority of these cases were due to “cruelty by husband or his relatives” (32.6%). This is borne out by National Family Health Survey-3 data of 2005-6 which shows that 40% of ‘ever-married women’ aged 15-49 experienced emotional, physical, or sexual violence at the hands of their husbands.

So clearly, when we tell women not to hang out in public space and to go home because they will be safer, we are misreading all the data on reported crimes against women. Home, family and known persons are no guarantee of safety for women. Yet, the overwhelming media narrative of danger plays down private/domestic violence, and instead, plays up violence against women in public space and assaults by strangers.

In fact, NCRB data shows that violence perpetuated by strangers is less of a threat than violence perpetuated by known persons on a woman in India. The 2015 NCRB data on the proximity of offenders to victims shows that in 95% of all rape cases, the offender knew the victim. For example, 27% of rapes were committed by neighbours and 9% by immediate family members and relatives. Additionally, at least 2% of all rape cases involved live-in partners or husbands (former partners/separated husbands as marital rape is not recorded), 1.6% were committed by employers or co-workers and 33% committed by other known associates.

This is not to play down real threats and fears women face in public space, some from known people and some from strangers. It is to acknowledge that women face violence at home just as much, and more, than outside, no place being necessarily ‘safer’ for them. What we then need is a change in the narrative that doesn’t play women’s ‘security’ against women’s ‘freedom’ of movement/accessibility of public space, but instead promotes women’s safety, empowerment and mobility at all costs while ensuring offender accountability and punishment.

Sameera Khan is a Mumbai-based journalist, researcher and co-author, Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets

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